May Day – Bangladeshi Workers Council

Yesterday I spoke at a MayDay celebration organised by the Bangladeshi Workers Council.  There were strong speeches from across the British trade union and Bangladeshi left.

We have been through a lot in Tower Hamlets politics, and I know that one of the aims of the organisers of the event was to renew our connection with our political roots and purpose.

When I spoke, I said something about what I have learnt from the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets about how to do politics.

The first, is that we stand up for ourselves when under threat. That is the lesson of Cable Street and of Altab Ali, as well as the lesson of the match women, dockers, suffragettes and labour movement stars through the generations.  It is why the neo fascist EDL or Britain First have to be dealt with decisively by the police – because this community has had to defend itself against fascists before, and will again, if authorities fail.  That cultural memory stands behind our resilience to the 2011 riots – our community policed itself.  It is why east end politics can be fractious, but it is how a poor and diverse area has made progress.

The second is more specific to Bangladeshi culture.  When there is a tension within the political family, a senior or trusted individual can bring people together and ask them to find a way of making peace, through a structured open dialogue where each have the opportunity to have their say, and the person leading the conversation seeks to find common ground.  “Deal making” is often the result of deeply rooted desire to avoid conflict through negotiation.

It is this tradition that I hope we can learn from as we move forward in Tower Hamlets.  We have been through a tough time in our politics, and the wounds are still visible.  We need more open and frank conversations, to understand one another better, to move Tower Hamlets forward.

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Our Father

There was a lot of publicity before Christmas about the decision of cinemas to ban the Church of England advert based on the Lord’s Prayer, and various of my friends wrote very well about the importance, radicalism and simplicity of that text.

My new year’s resolution is to be better at “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

The discipline of that line is that to forgive, you have to understand, and empathy, when you are angry or hurt, is difficult.

I have always tried to maintain this discipline – I think Tower Hamlets politics would have broken me by now if I had remained angry about every threat, insult or lie. It is sometimes harder when the pain is more personal. I will do better.

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Inventing the individual

There is something liberating about reading a book which explains something you had on some level always known.

“Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism”, by Larry Siedentop, has just done exactly that.

He sets out how the radical message of Christianity, that we are all of equal value before God, was built on through Paul and Augustine and many others through the ages, until it shaped the way the Catholic church reformed, with a representative structure that recognised that church authority lay with the collective membership, not just the Pope. That then informed that way in which nation states in Europe were constituted, and gave us the framework for western liberalism – equal status leads to the assertion of natural law, basic human rights, and then the case for self government.

The importance of free will and human agency in Christianity also led to secularism – because Christianity should teach us to value every individual, and individuals must choose their own faith, nation states created space for a public sphere where those who had not chosen Christianity could live freely alongside those who had. This is important because, too often, the European tolerance of others faiths is portrayed as a lack of commitment to faith. For some, it may be, but peaceful co existence with and respect for those of all faiths and none is not a compromise for Christianity, it is at its heart. Love your neighbour, who ever they are.

This book is an extraordinary account of the history of how Christian theology shapes how we live.

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Rebuilding the labour movement

To really renew our movement, we need to remake it.

If we want people to vote for us, they have to be able to see our values in action. Speeches, slogans, rhetoric, aren’t enough, and too many others – the SNP, Respect, Greens, are trying to steal our heritage.

Our movement is already modernising. The affiliated supporter rule change is renewing our union link, and the Co-Operative Party is full of innovation and ideas following the recent AGM win.

We need to create new labour movement institutions to solve new problems.

There have been a number of new organisations in the Labour family over the past few years, from Progress to Class, and a scattering of socialist societies, but, with the exception of Movement for Change, they are more talk than action.

Stella Creasy’s campaign on legal loan sharks inspired us all. The community organising campaign groups, campaigning on issues from debt to community safety, built by Labour people, should be able to sign up online and get an automatic voice in to our policy making progress, with a say in the future of our party, not dependent on individual shadow ministers or short lived initiatives.

Winning political power is vital, but we are going to be out of Westminster for five years, and we are in opposition in Scotland and in parts of local government across the country too. I care too much about my country to be willing to just protest and campaign.

We have to devolve to Scotland and Wales, London and local government, but devolution cannot stop in town halls, assemblies and parliaments – it needs to go beyond to a vibrant civil society. We need to build the organisations that are needed, with the people that need them, and we need to keep them as part of our movement, so they have a say in our decisions, from policy to leadership.

In Tower Hamlets, where I live, huge numbers of graduates, who worked hard, got good exam results, play by the rules, remain unemployed. Why not put the weight of the Labour Party behind my MP Rushanara Ali’s idea of a million mentors for young people, drawn from the ranks of our members and activists? The best answer I’ve heard to the question of why young people should bother voting – if we support them, we might be heard when we ask for their support in return.

The energy price freeze was a regulatory answer to an important question of spiralling fuel bills.   Caroline Flint’s work on collective switching energy providers was great – can it be built on, as a collective solution to uncertainty in household bills, sharing risk?

Yes we have to be experts in winning political power, and continue to modernise with the best possible targeting, canvassing and communications techniques. But our election winning infrastructure will continue to atrophy if we do not prove to the people we rely on to donate to us, canvass, deliver leaflets, that we have a purpose beyond running state machinery that is itself not fit for contemporary challenges.

The labour movement will represent you in you are in trouble at work, the labour movement will get you a loan with fair repayment terms, the labour movement will run shops, funeral homes, banks, that have people not profit at their core, and we should shout about that more. And we must build the new organisational solutions to the needs of the people of this country, not wait for Whitehall to do it.

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Lutfur Rahman chief exec letter 9th Sept 2014

Letter to Rachael Saunders re Chief Executive – 9 September 2014.doc

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Devolving power and fighting for equality

Devolving power to local government, to self defined groups of people and to individuals does not disempower local government. We need a bold manifesto that demonstrates that we trust the British people if we are to win the election, and we need to understand that changing how power works is the only way to make lasting progress on fighting inequality.

Equalities campaigners, feminists and anti racists have always understood this. If you want to deal with inequality, you need to give the power to make change to the people at the sharp end.

This is not an approach that will mean the dismantling of the whole of the public sector as we know it. The interim report of Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce recognises the difference between transactional services that deal with volumes of similar cases and cases of multiple and complex needs, where a more relational approach is needed. The work programme is the well used example of a standardised set of national contracts that has failed in tackling complex barriers to work. Children’s centres are an example of a national programme, with national funding and objectives, where the children’s centres in Tower Hamlets with the best outcomes are the ones where parent and the local voluntary sector had the greatest involvement.

In his article yesterday Luke called on us not to spend another period in divisive debate about public sector reform. No doubt Ed Miliband will do all he can to listen and bring people with him, but no change is not an option. A future Labour government will not be able to stop or reverse all of the cuts we are now facing. Either we slice away at social care, the NHS, police services until they collapse, or we do things differently. Demographic change means that what we need from social care and the NHS is different – more older people, mainly baby boomers with high expectations of quality of life and autonomy.

It is not just that change is needed because the world around us is transforming –change is needed because what we have now is often not good enough. As Alison McGovern has set out, too often people lose dignity, rather than gaining it, when they encounter the state. If simple, transactional services are all you need – a standard operation, the ability to renew your parking permit – coming to meetings may seem like a waste of time. If you are long term unemployed, have complex health conditions, are the parent of a child with significant educational needs, live in poor quality, overcrowded social housing, you will already spend a lot of your time in contact with various parts of the national and local state, and the way you are treated will leave with less and less dignity and power over your own future. There are many examples of voluntary sector organisations that start from a belief in the agency of people and communities to transform – our task is to entrench this approach in core service delivery.

The way services work can entrench existing social inequalities.

Whilst the centralised welfare state was essential to the progress women have made since 1945, the way it functions reinforces gendered family roles. Localised, plural service provision driven by those using it could change that.

Back to work support run by and for users, including women, could see skills training routinely run with childcare on site, or social services that integrate respect for the voice and contribution of carers of vulnerable or disabled people with support for carers to work.

I loved my pledge cards, but a 1997 election “retail offer” is not enough to tackle the challenges we are facing, or to cut through the lack of trust people have in politics. We can and must do better.

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A Mayor of London that leads for women

My Progress piece:



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